April 02, 2014 // Franchising.com // David Hollinger was faced with a dilemma that few people encounter: Purchase a yacht, retire and sail off into the sunset, or buy and operate a restaurant.
His choice seems even stranger. He bought the restaurant.
A few months after he made that fateful decision, Hollinger opened the first new Bennigan's in the state of Florida in five years. And he couldn't be happier.
"I've always loved Bennigan's and considered it to be an iconic brand. So when I heard that Bennigan's was back, I just knew it was the right concept at the right time for me," said Hollinger, 51, while sitting in one of the comfortable booths at his popular new restaurant in the Panama City Mall. "My wife, Deanna, just looked at me and said 'I knew you wouldn't retire.'"
"I don't think I could find a happier place to be right now," he says.
Hollinger's love affair with Bennigan's dates back to the early 1980s in Savannah, Georgia, where he remembers drinking green beer while watching a St. Paddy's Day parade. "They had a two-story building, and I recall thinking what a cool place it was even back then."
Roughly a decade later, Bennigan's re-entered his life while he was working at Ruby Tuesday in Gainesville, Florida.
"My buddies and I used to leave work and go over to Bennigan's after hours for drinks, because they were the only place around open late," Hollinger remembers. "I loved the ambiance, the service, the menu…pretty much everything about it."
Hollinger left the restaurant industry after 12 years because he didn't want to work for someone else any longer. He opened an automobile dealership, which grew into a very successful business for him in the 1990s.
When it came time to find a bigger and better home, Hollinger interviewed several builders. It didn't take long before he decided that he could do the job better than those who were pitching his business. After selling his dealership, a new chapter of his life began in developing commercial and residential building in North Mississippi. True to form, his third career, as a successful homebuilder, lasted a dozen years.
Last October he came full circle, back to the restaurant industry that was his first love. Hollinger is now all-in at his spacious new Bennigan's in Panama City, sticking with the formula that has brought the brand back to the top of the casual dining food chain.
"I am fully bought in to the Bennigan's way, which is all about delivering legendary dining experiences to every guest, every meal, every day," said Hollinger. "We call it 'bleeding green,' and that's what everyone on my management team here in Panama City does. We're committed to going above and beyond the call of duty – that's 'ABCD' for short – and we're just having a blast dishing out our craveable, chef-driven food, innovative drinks and friendly Irish hospitality."
Hollinger adds that none of his restaurant's success would be possible without the support he's received from Bennigan's corporate franchise staff, his General Manager, Sean Hall, and his dedicated staff that likewise "bleeds green 25/8."
Hollinger's new restaurant has added nearly 100 jobs to the Panama City economy. It boasts 16 beers on tap, 14 HD TVs and a climate-controlled outdoor patio with a fire pit that doubles as a VIP meeting room. In addition to the World Famous Monte Cristo®, the menu features such traditional Bennigan's favorites as its Oh, Baby™ Back Ribs, the Turkey O'Toole, the Big Irish double decker hamburger and a wide assortment of specialty drinks.
"David and Deanna impressed me from the moment I met them, and I just knew they would make Panama City Mall one of our flagship locations," said Paul Mangiamele, Bennigan's President and CEO. "The passion they have for the brand and their commitment to providing Legendary guest service is infectious. They've assembled an excellent management team that truly 'bleeds green,' and that's really exciting news for the people of northern Florida."
Never one to rest on his laurels, Hollinger also operates the first-of-its-kind "Bennigan's on the Fly" food truck. Patterned after the brand's fast casual concept designed for airports, hospitals and other non-traditional locations, the mobile restaurant is capable of serving nearly the entire Bennigan's menu at virtually any venue.
And the indefatigable restaurateur recently made yet another big announcement.
"I've purchased the first new Steak and Ale franchise in the nation, and I'm bringing it here to Panama City Beach early next year," said Hollinger.
Like Bennigan's, Steak and Ale is another venerable restaurant brand that lost its way in the 1980s. Owned by Bennigan's Franchising Company, Steak and Ale now exists only in name. But the company is staging a comeback, and Hollinger is out front carrying the flag.
"Everybody I know remembers Steak and Ale's warm sourdough bread, excellent steaks and prime rib and, of course, that amazing salad bar," said Hollinger. "We're going to bring the brand back to northern Florida and make it even better than it was in its heyday."
Hollinger still hasn't purchased the yacht, and Deanna mentions that occasionally. In fact, most of his retirement funds have been invested in his new Bennigan's and Steak and Ale franchises. But though it's only been about six months since the Panama City location opened last October, the restaurant has already set records for gross sales and for selling the most World Famous Monte Cristo sandwiches in a week.
"I've got a good 11-plus years to go before it's time to move on to my next adventure," Hollinger says with a smile. "Besides, I'm having way too much fun to retire!"
Bennigan's is a high-energy neighborhood restaurant and tavern that is redefining casual dining. With chef-driven food, innovative drinks and warm, friendly Irish Hospitality, this Legendary brand delivers memorable dining experiences to every guest, every meal, every day. Every member of the team "bleeds green" and demonstrates a 25/8 focus to support its franchise community. The company's revolutionary comeback has introduced a new generation of Bennigan's that reflects the brand's history and pays respect to its rich heritage. Bennigan's focus on reinvention, flexible prototypes, Legendary service and compelling returns on investment has resulted in explosive growth both domestically and internationally.
For franchising information, visit www.bennigans.com or call 855-GOT-BENN.